Last fall I quit my job of seven years. I worked at a fast growing e-commerce consultancy that built all their solutions on a platform developed in house. I got that job right out of uni, so the closed proprietary corporate way of doing things is all I have ever really known.
From that job I switched to a much smaller company about a tenth of the size.
One of the main reasons was not feeling it anymore... I cared about solving problems for our clients, but I didn't care about our in-house platform and I didn't really know most of my colleagues anymore (and they didn't know me). When I started there, we were around fifty people and the culture was great - I quickly got to know everyone and the company had kind of a "we are all one big family"-vibe. Fast forward a few years, and suddenly the head count was 200 and distributed across three locations in two cities.
With ten to fifteen new hires every month, it was impossible to get to know the new colleages, and the big social events where you had a chance to get to know people outside your team, happened only twice a year - and even then, it was difficult to get around to, and get to know more than a few new people.
During my years at university I had my hand in a lot of volunteer work, with both the university's friday bar and being a social "tutor" for the newer students. Common to these things were a feeling of very close connections with the people doing the same. Friends for life were made in those years - sure I still talk to the people I studied with, but the meaningful friendships that stand the test of time, are from the volunteer groups. It's even how I met my wife!
What does all this have to do with Umbraco and Codegarden?
Every year around March, a new team of around forty older students were recruited to be social tutors for the new students starting in august. The entire spring semester was spent preparing by going away on weekend retreats (called "pre-weekends") with a lot of teambuilding and partying - but what was special about these weekends were the traditions. Of course it was never an entirely new team of tutors, meaning the traditions were never lost and every year new traditions and in-jokes emerged.
It was a special feeling leaving on the bus for the first of these weekends - you could see the tutors from the previous years being the best of friends with all of their in-jokes and shared history and crazy stories. You felt a need to be a part of that specialness and it was obvious that it was a special group. But the really magical thing about it was that they all wanted all the newcomers to be part of the group as well. They had all been in that exact same position and felt the thrill of being included in a geniuinely awesome group and wanted to share it with the next generation!
I haven't had that feeling since then - until this week!
This week I have witnessed people from across the globe being the best of friends, high fiving and joking around - some even meeting in person for the first time. I have seen crazy traditions and wierd in-jokes. I have seen and felt the natural friendlyness and inclusive culture that this community is built on, and I feel like I have just been on my very first pre-weekend, just like back in the day - and I have a feeling that this is just the first steps of making making new relationships that will last a lifetime. And that's a rare feeling!
Why is it not just another tech conference?
On paper it looks a lot like other conferences I have been to, with a bunch of venues and speakers, and a lot of coffee. The attendees are all serious professionals, most of them even have real serious jobs at real serious companies! But that is just on paper. Arriving at the main entrance you are immidiately high fived by at least a dozen people you don't know. That is, after you make your way past the dancing guy painted gold from head to toe. Then you go get your lanyard at the table with all the lanyards, and move on inside. What the hell is that 3 meters in the air?! Oh, thats just a couple of the unicorns. Apparently unicorn balloons are needed in all rooms of the conference. Also, there is a Swag Shop, just like at music festivals or concerts - and the swag there is actually cool looking and something you would want to wear out in the real world.
You look outside, and there are already around a hundred people sitting around in the sun on the big fake lawn in festival chairs, and behind them people hammering huge nails in big logs positioned around the lawn. Nothing here looks fancy like you usually see at tech conferences - here, everything looks raw and inviting. Was that a 2 meter tall bunny that just walked by you? Yes it was!
Then the keynote - a few practical instructions. There will be no "networking" here! It sounds way too corporate and boring - for the next few days we will call it "friend making". Also, every time someone gets on any stage, they must be given a standing ovation - those are the rules.
Within the first hour of getting your lanyard, it is clear that this isn't just another conference - this is something else, something special.
Of course the talks are great too, but it is very apparent that the focus and point of this event is to foster the community - to give attendees easy conversation starters...
- "Hey there, did you know you get a face massage over there?"
- "Did you see the golden guy dancing randomly in the parking lot?"
- "Wanna join our nail hammering game?
- "Wow, nice turtle painting you have there on your face - where did you get that" (that question was asked of me several times... It was at the face painting booth of course).
It really is a brilliant way of making it easy for people to start a conversation with a stranger. Nothing here is too serious and it allows everyone - even introvert geeks - to let their guard down just enough to make a couple of new friends.
A bingo game where someone won a piano made me want to make a Pull Request
Of course the one thing everyone here has in common is Umbraco.
The open source CMS that so many people here love, and the real rock stars at this conference are the MVPs - the Most Valuable People. They are the ones that have made the biggest contributions to the platform, have made the packages that everyone uses or have done stuff for the Umbraco community. They are looked up to, because they are the ones that make the day to day lives better for everyone using Umbraco. None of them work for Umbraco the company, meaning they are all basically volunteering and getting nothing but community recognition in return - that's kind of magical!
The thursday night bingo game and subsequent party is legendary - last year someone won a cubic meter of sand, and legend has it that someone once won a (very) used car, which was flipped over by the winner and some friends later that same night.
This year was no exception... The theme was the olympics (UmbracOlymipcs) and it had the biggest game of Rock, Paper, Scissors ever played (probably). It had a super-slowmotion video booth where people threw sausages, rubber chickens and unicorns at your face (It was very popular).
Someone won a piano at bingo. And for the Jenga competetion on stage, a guy picked at random turned out to probably be one of the best Jenga players in the world.
And then... there was the boxing match.
Two of the most valuable MVPs ever had to get up on the main stage and box it out, because one of them had been hired by the Umbraco HQ, meaning he wouldn't be eligable for any more MVP awards and their feud for the most awards would have to end.
Of course he is not going to stop contributing, but you could feel a kind of sadness that he wouldn't be able to get recognition in the same tangible way anymore. His stats would be frozen from now on.
The amount of respect these guys where given by the crowd was an experience in itself - this is how you are accepted and get respected by the community: you contribute. In that moment all I wanted to do was go fix a bug in the platform, or do a pull request or something. Anything to contribute!
(By the way, it wasn't a real boxing match, they just had to build cardboard moving boxes in full boxing gear)
The respect and admiration given to the contributors in a community like this is special because the people contributing ultimately don't have to. They could just keep their packages to themselves or in their own companies, but they are giving back to a community that has given them so much and made their lives easier. It is an emergent culture where you don't keep the good stuff to yourself, you share it - and you get so much more back.
Imagine if the whole world worked like that.
For now, I'm inspired to become a much bigger part of the Umbraco Community, and start looking for ways to contribute - even though I'm so new to this world, that I haven't really felt the impact of the contributions of others yet.
What I have felt though, is the specialness of the people over the last few days, and this I want to be a part of.